Hard Work, Honesty and Determination – A True Horatio Alger Tale

In Alumni Spotlight, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Featured, Featured Gator Engineer, Honors & Awards, News

Erica, Gatorloop

When the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, Inc., announced the seven recipients of the 2018 Dennis Washington Leadership Scholarship, Erica Harp got an unexpected but well-deserved boost to her educational funding.

Erica had graduated from the UF Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering at the end of 2017 and had started on her M.S. in Aerospace Engineering specializing in Dynamics, Systems, and Controls, when she heard the news.

“I was really surprised,” Erica said. “All the candidates were so good; I had no idea I would be selected.” As one of 12 finalists, Erica represented the top 1% of all applicants. She traveled to San Diego for an in-person interview with 13 judges before being selected as one of the seven winners.

The scholarship pays for tuition, books, housing, food and transport while she pursues her graduate degree. At UF, that amounts to $30,000 per year. “The scholarship is allowing me to get my M.S. without having to worry about finances,” Erica said.

Erica also won a Horatio Alger undergraduate scholarship as a freshman at UF, which allowed her to compete for the graduate scholarship. The Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation established its Leadership Scholarship program to “provide financial assistance to State and National Horatio Alger Scholar Alumni who have exhibited leadership, integrity, entrepreneurial skills, and perseverance in overcoming personal adversity, and who aspire to pursue a graduate level education.”

During her first year in the undergraduate Mechanical Engineering program, Erica received an email from Salena Robinson, her academic advisor, notifying students about the Horatio Alger Honeywell scholarship.

While most Horatio Alger scholarships are awarded to graduating high school seniors, Honeywell was sponsoring scholarships for college freshmen pursuing STEM degrees.

“It’s important for students who need help with paying for college to work with their advisors,” Erica said. “With Salena’s help, I submitted all my information, and I was selected as a 2014 Honeywell Scholar.”

Erica was awarded $10,000 over the course of her college career to help with school tuition.

Like many of Horatio Alger’s youthful protagonists in his nineteenth century novels, Erica had overcome adversity on her journey to college and on to a successful early career. Her family suffered severe financial hardships during her school years, and she faced many difficulties including poverty, eviction and homelessness.

A Florida Bright Futures scholarship helped her get to UF. She had always been interested in math and was placed in advanced programs in middle school. In high school, she was able to take courses that gave her college credits.

"It’s important for students who need help with paying for college to work with their advisors."
While abroad, Erica enrolled in an "Intelligent Cars and Mobile Applications" course, which counted as a technical elective for UF.

During these years, Erica was exposed to engineering as a choice for her future.

“I liked the classes that showed us about robotics, and I really enjoyed the hands-on labs. That helped me decide on mechanical engineering as my area of interest. I wanted to be in a field where the work I was doing would be able to change the future for the better,” she said.

With the boost from the scholarship, Erica was determined to get the most out of her college experience.

“It is so important for students to try as many things as they can to challenge themselves and explore the world around them,” she said. “Sometimes engineering students are afraid to study abroad because they think they might not meet all their requirements for graduation, but Pingchien Neo, the Director of International Engineering Programs, helped me make all the necessary contacts and helped me select classes that were fully equivalent to my UF classes.”

Erica studied abroad at the Technical University of Denmark during her senior year. One important factor, she explained, was that there were no additional costs.

“I was able to use my scholarships to pay my UF tuition, and it covered the international classes,” she said.

Another email from Salena Robinson gave Erica direction for her professional life.

“Lockheed Martin was holding an information session at UF. After a summer doing an individual study with Dr. Anil Rao in his Vehicle Dynamics and Optimization Laboratory, I knew I wanted to go down the dynamics and controls route of Mechanical Engineering. I thought Lockheed would be the perfect company to explore these fields, so I attended, applied, and got an internship for the next summer.”

For two years, Erica did summer internships at Lockheed’s Orlando Missiles & Fire Control facility. “I worked in their guidance, navigation, and control (GNC) department doing verification and validation of their inertial measurement unit (IMU) for the JAGM program, and also Kalman Filter tuning development for the JASSM program,” she said.

This past summer, Erica has been interning at Lockheed’s Valley Forge, Pennsylvania facility, where she works on collaborative behaviors for communication between hypersonic vehicles. This fall she will return to UF to complete her M.S. while she continues working remotely as an intern.

When she graduates with her M.S. in May 2019, Erica hopes to work full-time for Lockheed Martin in Philadelphia or Denver.

In addition to the invaluable experience Erica received at Lockheed Martin, she also had the opportunity to co-op with GE Appliances, lead the UF SpaceX Hyperloop team as Treasurer of Gatorloop and was a teaching assistant for both Problem Solving with Computer Software and Numerical Methods of Engineering Analysis.

“It was all the resources and support I got at the University of Florida that made it possible for me to accomplish so much. UF and the Horatio Alger Association truly helped me go greater.”Erica Harp
Gatorloop: An opportunity for leadership

Erica, Gatorloop

During her sophomore through senior years, Erica participated on UF’s SpaceX Hyperloop team, known as Gatorloop. The design team had the opportunity to create and engineer one of the first-ever hyperloop vehicles. Gatorloop’s design ended up placing among the top 22 teams out of 1,200. The team presented their half-scale prototype at SpaceX in California.

“The Hyperloop is intended to be used as a high-speed transportation method that can move people at speeds upwards of 700 mph. The implications for transportation are comparable to the impact that cars and later planes had on the industry,” she said.

In addition to being an original member of Gatorloop, Erica also served as Treasurer and managed a stringent $60,000 design and operational budget. 

“The key to Gatorloop’s success is innovation. No one had ever set a precedent on a project like this before, nor had a project like this been attempted. We were truly in uncharted territory, and we managed to build something that will be a catalyst for incredible change within the transportation industry," Erica said.